A guide to long exposure photography

Long exposure photography is something that many photographers like to try at least once. Using a neutral density filter to extend exposure time can be a great way to expand your creativity when it comes to producing great images. This basic guide should give you a head start and provide you with the knowledge you will need to get started.

Things you will need

  • A camera and lens, hopefully this goes without saying.
  • A sturdy tripod is important and buying one of poor quality rather than save for a bit longer is false economy. Buy the best that you can afford and look at it as an investment. I use the Gitzo Systematic Series tripods. I like the Systematic range due to the centre column being absent. The lack of centre column means maximum stability and the ability to set the tripod up really close to the ground when needed. If I look after them these will last me for decades to come.
  • A sturdy tripod head is also important, especially when using heavier cameras and longer lenses. Setting up your shot only to have your camera keep moving due to a head that is not up the task is very frustrating. It was exactly this that finally made me bite the bullet and buy decent kit. I use a Kirk BH-1 and Kirk BH-3 Ball Head on each of my tripods. They are simple but solid and very well made.
  • A neutral density filter I recommend the square type filters that use an adapter and filter holder to fit to your lens such as those in the image below. Screw in filters will also work but do have limitations. I highly recommend the LEE 100mm Filter System due to its high quality and flexibility when it comes to using different cameras and lenses. I use a single selection of filters for my Fujifilm X-T2, Fujifilm GFX-50s and even my large format film camera. The only thing I need to change Is the adapter ring that fits to the front of my lens. ND filters are available in many different strengths. A 10 stop filter is a good place to start and will allow you to reduce exposure time enough to make a significant impact on your image.
  • A remote shutter release cableIf you don't have a cable, use the cameras built in timer as this will help to eliminate any softness in your image caused my camera shake.

Optional extras

  • Graduated neutral density filters (For balancing exposure).
  • A circular polarising filter Can be used to reduce haze and control reflections.
  • 3 old CD's (These can be placed under the tripod feet to stop the legs sinking when shooting on soft sand or mud).

Camera and lens settings

  • Single shot mode and all bracketing options turned off.
  • Focus set to manual and if your camera has the option then turn focus peaking on as this will help you to focus easily.
  • Any image stabilisation turned off as this can become confused when your camera is mounted on a tripod and cause it to make corrections that are not needed resulting in a soft image.
  • ISO needs to bet set at the lowest native setting and not in auto ISO. For example on the Fujifilm X-T2 this will be ISO 200.
  • Aperture is dependant on many things such as subject, what lens you are using and how much depth of field you require. For now lets assume we are using a wide angle lens and set the aperture at between f/8 and f/11. This should give you enough depth of field to ensure front to back sharpness.
  • Long exposure noise reduction set to off. You can choose to keep this turned on if you wish and allow the camera to apply noise correction. The only problem with this is that for every exposure you make, the camera will take the same amount of time to process the file and apply the noise correction. This could mean a long wait in between shots and possible missed opportunities. It's easy enough to apply noise correction when post processing.
  • Shoot RAW if you want maximum flexibility when it comes to post processing your image. This, as with most other things is optional and if you don't wish to spend time at the computer and are happy with the JPEG files that your camera produces, then shooting in JPEG is fine. It does limit you though and due to the colour casts that can produced by some neutral density filters, having the maximum flexibility and information contained within the RAW file is going to ensure that you get the absolute best results possible. Most cameras now have the option of shooting RAW+JPEG so if you are unfamiliar with processing RAW files choose this option and you will have a JPEG file you can share straight away and a RAW file that you can come back to at a later date.

Let's get shooting!

So now that we have all the settings needed to make a long exposure lets put it into practice. My favourite place for long exposure photography is on the coast or anywhere that has water.

Long exposures can turn the roughest of seas calm and give seascapes an almost alien appearance.


Set the exposure

Set up your tripod carefully in a firm and level position and find a composition that you are happy with. Plug in your remote shutter release and dial in the correct exposure. We've already set the aperture and ISO as above so the only remaining part of the exposure triangle is the shutter speed. If you have a mirrorless camera such as the Fujifilm XT-2 this can be done with the ND filter in place but to ensure we nail focus and for the benefit of those not using a camera with this function leave it off for now. Keep an eye on your histogram as a good guide to correct exposure.

Balancing exposure

As mentioned in the 'Optional Extras' section above. If using a filter holder a Graduated Neutral density filter can be used to balance exposure at this point if the dynamic range of the scene exceeds that which the camera can record in a single exposure.

This is where using screw in filters can be limiting and the options would either be to bracket exposures and blend together in post processing or decide whether to sacrifice details in the shadows or highlights. If you decide to use a graduated filter then ensure to leave the place in your filter holder closest to your lens free for the ND filter. Doing this ensures that a light tight seal is made between the filter and filter holder.


Check again that you are in manual focus and focus your lens. Zooming in to ensure critical focus is a good idea. Taking your time now and ensuring everything is right will save disappointment when sat at the computer later.

Take a test shot

Before placing the neutral density filter in place, take a test shot. Be sure to use either a remote shutter release cable or the cameras built in self timer. This will eliminate camera shake that can be caused by pressing the shutter button. Ensure that exposure is correct and zoom in around the scene to check focus. Make any adjustments that are needed and repeat this step until you are happy.

Fit the ND filter

Make a note of the exposure time without the ND filter and then put the filter in place. I like to remove the filter holder from the lens to slide the ND filter into place. This ensures that I don't accidentally mess up my composition by moving the camera and also means that I can check that it is fitted correctly with no gaps where I may get light leaks. If using a screw in filter then be careful not to move the camera or adjust focus accidentally.

Calculate the correct exposure

Calculating the long exposure is easy these days due to technology available to us. There are various applications that you can use and many filter manufacturers include a sheet showing adjusted exposure times. LEE filters have an app that allows you to select either their 6 Stop, 10 Stop or 15 Stop Filters that is excellent. For example if my un-filtered exposure time is 1/15th second my exposure time using a 10 Stop filter will be 1 minute. If you don't have access to a device that supports the use of these applications I would recommend writing down or printing out corrected exposure times on a sheet of paper and keeping them in your camera bag. This is good practice anyway as phone battery's do go flat at the most inconvenient of times.

Check again!

Make an exposure with the filter in place using the remote shutter release cable or built in self timer. Check the exposure is correct and that focus is accurate on the image you've just taken and make any final adjustments that are needed.


The more you use neutral density filters for long exposure photography the more familiar you will become with the effects that they produce. Taking into account the movement of clouds among other things that can add to your compositions. As with anything the more you practice the better you will get. Hopefully the information provided here will give you a head start and serve as a useful guide.



Using filters for creative control

I remember discovering filters for the first time. I'd read a couple of articles online that sparked my interest so after a quick look on eBay I picked up a couple of cheap screw in neutral density filters and headed to the coast (Seaton in Devon to be exact). After experimenting for a while I got the hang of using them and I really enjoyed the creative possibilities that they opened up for me. Fast forward a few years and I don't leave home without a full set of filters as they are an essential part of my workflow for landscape photography for both film and digital.

I don't use screw in filters any more, they don't provide me with enough control and just aren't very practical. I decided very quickly that a set of square filters and filter holder were what suited my needs best so after a bit of research I decided upon the LEE 100mm Filter System. As you can see in the photo below there are two types of filter that I use. These are neutral density filters and graduated neutral density filters. ND filters are used to reduce the amount of light that enters the lens across the whole of the frame reducing exposure equally and graduated neutral density filters are used to reduce the amount of light entering the lens over a specific area of the frame such as a bright sky during sunset. The sunset photo at the top of this page wouldn't have been possible without a graduated filter or series of exposures combined in post processing without the loss of detail in the sky due to blown highlights.

A selection of the LEE filters that I currently use (filter holder not shown). Notice the difference in gradation and density from left to right. The two completely black filters at the bottom are the LEE Little Stopper and Big Stopper used for increasing exposure time. These filters can create a really dramatic effect.

I've stuck with LEE filters since first purchasing a foundation kit and have slowly built up the kit that I have today. I have always been more than happy with the results the system has given me . I can't compare them to any rival brands because I haven't used anything else but I haven't felt the need to try another brand. As the old saying goes 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Some people decide not to use filters, deciding instead to use multiple exposures (bracketing) and then combining these when post processing. This is a sound technique and sometimes essential for certain situations, but it's not the way that I choose to work if I can help it. I actually enjoy using filters, it enhances the photographic experience for me, from choosing the right filter and insuring the exposure is correct to seeing the image for the first time after a long exposure, it all adds to the fun. It also means I am capturing a single moment rather than multiple moments. This may be the photography snob in me speaking but doing things this way makes things feel more.....pure.

This was a 30 second exposure shot on the Fujifilm XT-2 with 16mm 1.4. I used the LEE Big Stopper combined with a 0.6 soft grad filter to create the shot that I was after.

I enjoy long exposure photography using both the LEE Little Stopper (this reduces the light entering the lens by 6 stops) or the LEE Big Stopper (10 stops). They also make a Super Stopper which I haven't tried yet, that reduces the light entering the lens by a massive 15 stops! This would mean if your shutter speed without a filter is 1/100 sec you would be looking at an exposure time of 5 minutes and 20 seconds with the Super Stopper. This allows you to be creative and capture surreal landscapes that show the movement of clouds or smooth the movement of water to give a sense of calm even on days when the weather is less than perfect.

I used the LEE Little Stopper here to maintain a feeling of movement in the waves and a 0.6 very hard grad to darken the clouds. Shot on the Fujifilm XT-2 with 35mm 1.4.

Another filter that I use on a regular basis is the circular polarising filter. The Circular Polariser is probably the filter that I use the most but it needs to be used with care and I tend not to use it on lenses wider than 16mm (24mm full frame equivalent) as this can lead to various issues such as vignetting or an uneven polarising effect across the frame. They can be used to darken blue sky, control reflections or reduce the glare on the surface of water. The polarising effect is strongest when used in bright sunshine at 90 degrees to the sun however I tend to use one on overcast days when shooting seascapes. This is definitely a filter that you want to invest in for your Landscape photography.

One thing to be wary of when choosing a filter system is the colour cast produced by some filter brands. Its worth doing your own research on this before deciding on which system to go for as the filter system you choose could stay in your camera bag for many years to come. I have had very few problems with colour cast using the LEE system. An old Big Stopper that I had used to give me a slight blue colour cast that was easily fixed in post process but after loosing it to the sea and replacing it with a new one this colour cast seems to have disappeared almost completely. LEE now make a ProGlass IRND range of filters that claim to offer even better performance than the standard filters and when finances allow I will be trying these out for myself. If shooting in black and white colour cast isn't really an issue.

1 second exposure using the LEE Little Stopper and Medium Grad Filter. Fujifilm XT-2 with 35mm 1.4.

As you can see from the photographs above, using filters can be great fun and produce excellent results when used correctly. Attention to detail and careful positioning of graduated filters is key to achieving good results but a bit of practice, patience and a keen eye is all it takes. Buy a decent set of filters and look after them and they are sure to hold a permanent place in your camera bag.



A Fujiholics Story - Paul Sanders

Paul SandersI’ve been a professional photographer since the age of 19. My mind was made up for me at school hen the careers advisor told me I shouldn’t be a photographer - apparently it’s too competitive and I hadn’t got the right aptitude for it.

My career has been varied so far, I’ve shot glamour calendars, advertising work, wedding and hair fashion for a very well known hair stylist. But most of my photographic life has been spent as a news photographer or picture editor.

I started in news photography at a paid for weekly newspaper in Northampton and moved fairly swiftly to wards a career on Fleet Street, firstly with international wire service Reuters and by 2002 The Times. By 2004 I was made picture editor of The Times and took control of the visual content of the publication in all its various guises. I’d look through around 17-20,000 images everyday, assign photographers across the world covering everything from conflict to Royal weddings, weather features to business profiles.

By 2011 I got ill with stress related issues leading eventually to a breakdown, depression, insomnia and self harm, so by the end of 2011 I left the cut throat world of newspapers and set about shooting landscapes. I started using 5x4 Ebony cameras and 6 x 12 horseman as well as my DSLRs and to cut a long story struggled a lot, my illness didn’t help but the amount of kit I had bogged me down to the point that I pretty much stopped taking pictures.

By chance I went into the local camera shop and picked up an X-Pro1 with a 14mm lens. I decide dot get back my inspiration I’d only shoot with one camera and one lens for a bit. The joy of being free from the big bag of kit was like a breath of fresh air through my photography and my life.

So, You’re a Fujiholic?

Having used the X-Pro1 for a while, when Fuji released the X-T1 I was hooked from the moment I touched it - it reminded me of my Nikon FM2 - A camera I loved and still do, but here was this little camera that didn’t get in the way of my photography and had the looks and feel of a camera that got me started. I made the decision overnight pretty much to go Fuji. I started selling my Canon gear and acquiring Fuji lenses and some change!

Which is your favourite lens? Why?

I don’t really know because I go through phases of loving different lenses. When the 10-24 was launched I used nothing else for months. The lens I use a lot at the minute is the 50-140, but the lens that I have on my camera most is the 23mm.

The optics of all the Fuji lenses are stunning, so in truth the lens I have on the camera is my favourite.

What's next for me?

I'm trying to get gallery representation, and it’s not as easy as it might sound, so this year is about getting my work into as many fairs and exhibitions as possible.